Highlights of 2018: Part IV

In the fourth of five picks, here’s La Course which provided action, attacks and a twist in the final.

So much of the coverage of women’s racing is about the coverage of women’s racing. Heaven knows there are problems but it’s important to remember it’s a sport too and for once here was a race live on TV with a spectacular course. After a start in Annecy the twin climbs of the Col de Romme and the Col de la Colombière were the obvious points to decide the race before a descent to the finish in Grand Bornand.

The course was a truncated version of the men’s race, it skipped the Col de Glières and its gravel portion, a frustration when the route was announced but with hindsight maybe this turned out for the better as it meant they skipped a selective climb that could have thinned the peloton down too soon. Maybe not?

If they avoided the plateau, they were still in the Alps and the shortcut involved climbing and by the time an early break went clear several others were dropped, no processional start here. The Cervélo-Bigla team had a plan and sent sprinter Lotta Lepistö across the early breakaway, not so much of long range bid but more of a relay. The move of five reached the Col de Romme with a lead under 90 seconds, far from enough.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervélo-Bigla) put in the first big move from what was left of the peloton and rode away, quickly passing the earlier breakaway riders and building up a lead of a minute and suddenly in contention. Behind Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) put in an attack and this prompted a counter move soon after by Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans), Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (Cervélo-Bigla) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) formed with Lucina Brand (Team Sunweb) just out of the picture. They chased down Uttrup Ludwig.

If many climbs have hairpins, the upper section of the Col de la Colombière is a long straight hugging the side of the mountain and almost an optical illusion for the way the top of the pass looks within reach when it’s kilometres away. It’s gruelling but all the better for a small group of riders to race and the viewer can constantly measure the distance between the riders. Moolman Pasio attacked just as they caught her team mate, a textbook move but the South African rider could get away and was countered. Now the race was down to two and van der Breggen attacked in the final kilometre of the climb and held a slender lead of three seconds at the pass. Try as she might Van Vleuten couldn’t close it but she could limit it and during the long descent the gap was never more than a few seconds.

But that gap persisted and as they turned back up the road to the finish there was tension but a creeping sense of resignation as if van Vleuten’s effort wasn’t enough. The suspense was such that there were tweets announcing van der Breggen’s win, as if they were sent when people caught sight of her in the finishing straight. Only for a slight rise before the line to tilt the balance and with 25 metres to go van Vleuten surged past.

Why the highlight?

It wasn’t a great women’s race, it was a great race. Scenic too. A gradual process of elimination and if there were team tactics from Cervélo-Bigla and Mitchelton-Scott, these teams didn’t and couldn’t impose a curfew on the race. The Col de Romme thinned things down – as perhaps did many tired legs from those who’d just finished the Giro Rosa and made the journey in time – and then the best riders left took turns to attack on the final climb and the suspense remained on the descent to the point where the result began to look inevitable but was flipped in the final metres.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s post-race interview was a joy, the sheer pleasure of taking part was evident a contrast with the men’s Tour when words are often weighed to their last gram.

With hindsight…

A women’s race in the mountains that’s live on TV ought to be a default highlight of the calendar, just like a mountain stage of the Giro or Tour. The Giro Rosa may visit the mountains but you can’t watch it live and next year’s La Course is a circuit race outside Pau on the morning of the men’s time trial, a fine day out for roadside picnickers but not the stuff of dreams, nor even the glamour that the Champs Elysées criterium used to offer sponsors and VIPs. So the chance to see the women racing in the high mountains turns out to have been a rarity.

While we wait for a women’s stage race to appear – it’s in the works, 2017’s two-day Izoard-Marseille was as much a logistical test as a two day race – a question: if this one day race came down to a duel, then would a stage race risk extend and entrench this hierarchy? Put another way this was an exciting one day race but make a stage race out of it and it may not be as sparkling as riders measure their efforts accordingly, see the men’s race when they were climbing the Colombière in a huddle. That would be a nice worry to have.

Highlights of 2018 – Part I
Highlights of 2018 – Part II
Highlights of 2018 – Part III

39 thoughts on “Highlights of 2018: Part IV”

  1. At the moment almost every women’s race I see is great viewing. Been watching cyclocross with my daughter. Hoping she gets inspired to get out on the bike more.

    My biggest peeve with Team Sky or whoever pouring all this money into cycling is how little of that is strengthening the sport. Why don’t they have a top women’s team with all that money? That might be good PR.

    How about a salary cap for WT teams that don’t also have a WT women’s team? Dreaming I know.

    • If I was the king of pro cycling (and I was stuck with the WT idea) a key requirement to get into the WT would be to operate a women’s team. I’d impose not a salary cap, but a fixed amount to be spent by any team applying to be part of the WT. Would 5 million be enough to start? With 18 women’s pro teams funded at 5 million each, would great races to showcase them follow? The king might have to impose on the race promoters to come up with something otherwise. How many women could then quit their day jobs and devote all their attention to training and racing?

  2. I must confess, I’m not nearly as interested in women’s cycling as in men’s. I don’t have anything against it of course, and I hope, for the women’s sake that it grows as much as possible. I just don’t think men are the crowd that are the target public. And with women not interested in cycling as much, there is you limiting factor.

    As a side observation, I’ve been to several Belgian classics and some of them have a women’s race go by just before the men’s.
    I have seen quite a few clearly overweight young ladies, but not a single guy. Is it different for them, physiologicaly? Or are some of them just not as focused as the mens.

      • “Overweight”. Don’t you mean healthy? It’s this kind of language that some women’s sport directors used and the long term psychological effects of that have been coming in as a steady cycling news stream lately. For women, too low a fat percentage wreaks havoc on hormonal balance even causing long term damage when you push things too far. If they stay on the safe side, don’t view that as unprofessional, but as common sense. On top of that, there is the normal distribution of climbers and flatlanders. Women’s teams are smaller, so you’ll see more of a mix in races, instead of the specialisation in men’s races.

        Maybe you should not assume your lack of interest is common. Belgian CX viewing rates for the women’s races are nearly as high as the men’s races and for good reason: It’s exciting to watch a different woman win every other weekend. Those numbers clearly prove that women can attract the same exposure as men and sponsors are starting to pick up on that. The only way to kickstart that is to improve the sport of women’s cycling and that starts at the UCI for rules on salary and so on and at organisers. I suspect what’s holding that back is simply the outdated beliefs of all those grey male board members.

        The first thing that has to go, is the idea that women cannot cope with the difficulty of some race parcours. Just include the same difficult stuff like cobbles and ultrasteep climbs, only make the race slightly shorter so women have the same race duration as men. Or shorter, not because they cannot cope with it, but because it’s more exciting in general. The women that race mountainbike world cup (or MTB stage races) laugh at the difficulty of road races.

        • Right. Just don’t forget that long term damage and serious psychological & hormonal effects (albeit with some obvious difference in kind) are there for men, too. Part of the sport’s *culture* is don’t caring or being pushed not to care. Which is something that should be tackled seriously for more or less the same reasons as doping.
          Plus, what Goonie says below.

        • I was not assuming the lack of interest is common. The lack of interest is shown by data.

          Again, though I do not know the BMIs of these girls/women, in relation to the typical female cyclist body type, they looked overweight. I don’t know if this is something normal for female cycling or not, hence my question. Maybe with that body type they can handle the wind better or even have the optimum power to weight ratio for flat riding. So they would be good team mates to have for a slimmer team leader.

          Some of you reacted like this a politically incorrect problem to raise. I don’t think this level of sensibility helps the conversation. And if can’t discuss question a cyclist’s performance based on her apparent phisique it only splits the women and men cycling further apart. Because nobody would have a problem if I say that Betancourt was just too fat to be the best cyclist he could have been, for multiple seasons.

      • It’s sport, phisiology is a big part of it. If they get offended that easily, they mentioned that not have the mental fortitude either. But I’m sure they didn’t lack that, I said these were Belgian classics.

        And I wasn’t planning to be condescending. I stated that I am not as interested and argued why I think in the current situation they struggle to grow at a faster pace.
        I do wish they did, because it would have an impact in societies.

    • I used to feel the same way as your first paragraph, my presumptions coming from having watched a tiny number of women’s races (imagine if I judged men’s cycling only by watching the TdF – I’d think it was a pretty dull sport). Then I had the rare opportunity – Strade Bianche (can’t remember the year), because they actually show both races – to see a women’s race properly. It was the best race of the year, bar none. Since then, I’ve caught hardly any women’s racing, mostly because they don’t show it, but what I have seen has shown me that it can be just as thrilling as men’s – and can be dull, just like the men’s, e.g. the women’s WC.
      Cycling is back in the 1950s when it comes to gender equality: the race organisers make cursory efforts in the main (2019 is a derisory effort by ASO), TV coverage is often a pointless showing of the last km within a men’s race (thus ruining both) or nothing at all, and worst of all (because those previously mentioned are private, profit-based entities so they have something of an excuse) is the UCI. Their limits on how long women’s races can be are pure sexism: I cannot think of a single other sport that tells women that they are so limited. The WC are approx. 255km and 155km for the men and women. Does anyone who isn’t a misogynist seriously think that women are only capable of doing 60% of what the men do? As long as the distance differences are so great, many (no matter how wrongly) are going to view women’s races as ‘not real races’.
      The UCI’s rules prevent women’s cycling being taken seriously – the best thing they could do is leave en masse and start their own organising body, but I daresay that would cost them Olympic participation, which is presumably their biggest event. Women’s races should be mostly independent of men’s: that way, they’d be seen in their own right, not as some ‘version’ of a men’s race. A grand tour would be a good start – of a decent length: start with two weeks and see how it goes. Germany in June would seem ideal – not clashing with the Giro or Tour – not related to any men’s race, and in a growing (hopefully) market who are still cynical about men’s cycling and the doping involved (I’m in no way saying that women don’t dope – I haven’t a clue).

    • What you call overweighted, others call it just NORMAL.
      Not normal are the bulimic dudes in the men’s peloton. I remember that infamous pic of Rasmussen, where he looked lie poor souls after the liberation of a concentration camp.

      • Overweight is a specific term, not subjective. By medical definition it’s something else than normal weight. Now of course I didn’t measure the BMI, but in relation to most of the girls that were at the top, that I would consider normal weight for this activity, the term is useful, although inaccurate.

        • You might do with using girls/boys or women/men rather than girls/men if you’d not like to be seen as condescending or accused of misogyny. I would like to know how you can determine someone is “more than normal weight” (overweight by your definition) simply by watching them race past you on a bicycle? Do you whip out the body-fat calipers or some sort of BMI measurement as they go by?

        • It’s more than doubtable, that you have any scientific knowledge to mark somebody as “overweigted” based on a tv picture, How fat are you in your armchair. misogynist?

  3. Agreed. That was one of the best races of the season, and the best finish of the season, full stop.
    I can’t tell anybody else what to like and not like, but if you couldn’t enjoy La Course, I dunno what could convince you.

    Re Gabriel’s comment, the women’s peloton doesn’t have the depth of the men’s – even at the top races the fields are filled out by amateurs If cycling is something they’re fitting in with a day job, it’s not surprising some of them aren’t as committed to starving themselves as full-time pros.

    • Watched GCN’s recent episode on eating disorder amongst competitive cyclist. After watching it, I’d say it’s actually a good thing that some of the ladies are not as committed to starving themselves as their male counter parts.

  4. Good choice.

    When I first started watching Women’s racing I was struck by how much attacking the top riders did in comparison to men’s racing. I figured it was because the teams don’t have as much strength in depth. It also occurred to me that this dynamic felt like watching men’s racing from the golden era.

  5. This was the highlight of the year for me. A race that had everything.
    I totally agree with the hindsight part too.
    In my opinion, La Course 2019 has nothing to add to the women’s calendar. There are already plenty of this kind of races in it. On the other hand, pure mountainous races are a rarity in the women’s calendar.

  6. I wonder if the dominance of Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen, which does wonders for the popularity for women’s cycling here in the Netherlands, perhaps hurts the sport in other countries? Just check the names in the article; traditional cycling countries like France, Spain, Belgium and to a lesser extent even Italy do not have contenders.

    • Nationalism is a big factor only among incompetent spectators, who, for good or ill, are still a tiny fraction of women cycling’s public in Italy, Spain and France, way tinier than in men’s case.
      VV and VVB grant a great show to pretty much everybody, just as Vos did. I wasn’t around in the last couple of editions to witness the situation personally at the Giro Donne, but I recall that when I was there Vos, and Abbott, and Pooley, and Ferrand-Prévot, and Pucinskaite, and Cooke etc. were hugely appreciated by the Italian fans even if they were beating Italian riders.
      Besides, if we’re going to believe that Le Course is *the sport* (“just check the names in the article”), with the same black hole effect the TdF’s got on the typical UKcyclingexpert, well, perhaps is better not to have it around – I’m exaggerating, of course.
      Women cycling’s got a great season and nowadays several countries have got their household names who can have their day notwithstanding the current Netherlands dominance (which also includes, at least, Vos, Wild, Blaak, Pieters, Van Dijk… and the team factor, of course – pretty much amazing).
      But it’s not like the rest isn’t there – winning from time to time or, to say the least, granting a certain field depth to the top part of the charts.
      The Trofeo Binda is a true monument of women cycling and the podia of the last ten years show quite a decent variety, despite the rightful recurring presence of the strongest champions. The Emakumeen Bira is probably the second most important stage race left in the calendar and… have a look at its palmarés.
      In Belgium, not only women CX races but also road races have produced comparable audience results to men’s when properly broadcast.

      (I must say that, all in all, Spain is probably the country with the least media attention towards women road cycling and, indeed, they’ve totally lost Somarriba’s heritage in recent years; I hope that Movistar’s project might change things for better)

      • Nationalism will for ever be a big factor, as long as we have nations. In all sports.

        There is a sense in cycling, of all sports, that keeping with their nations’ great, well – that’s not a cycling fan, that’s a nation fan. Although, the rise of cycling cycling latest 20 ys have been only from that great names have been from unknown nations who then have had a great surgence in cycling popularity. UK, Norway, Denmark, Colombia, Slovakia comes to mind. UCI globalism have nothing to do with it, it has to do with media in their own country to propagate the sport, and that is usually done when that nation have a good athlete in that sport.

        I don’t like nationalism much myself, but to say it is a sign of less competence in the sport, well – that is way out of line. I mean, have all french no idea about cycling because they like french cyclists?

        Your last (paragraph) says it all. Why has it so little media attention towards spanish women roadies?

        • A competent spectator will usually notice how his or her nationalism – if he or she suffers from such an illness – ends up been overwhelmed very soon by the sheer appreciation of how good are all the great champions, irrespective of their birthplace and so.

          My last paragraph doesn’t “say it all”, given that Belgium hasn’t presently got many household names in road cycling (essentially, just D’Hoore) but media interest and viewing figures are fine. So, no correlation there. Just different examples.

  7. Great to read this write up as one of the highlights of the year. Gives me good reason to revisit the highlight reel and that wonderful interview. Thanks Inner Ring.

  8. I can’t believe there is still people out there who don’t think women cycling is the shit?

    There is a lot wrong in road cycling probably, but if you think the men WT is pretty boring, then stop watching that and start watching womens cycling and U23/Junior both genders cycling.

    Now that is racing.

  9. ASO have pretty clearly and heavily stated their dis-interest in supporting and developing womens cycling. A quick glance through the calendar will show you an almost completely lack of ASO equivalent events, whilst RCS and Flanders Classics (the other two of the big three organisers) are now pretty much at a 1:1 ratio (baring specific stage numbers between, say the Giro and the Giro). And yet the ASO races are arguably the most exciting and watched of the year!

    This edition of La Course was phenomenal and will be talked about for years and years in the sport. Watching the finale i wasn’t on the edge of my seat, i was upstanding and shouting at the TV. Last time that happened a certain Wiggins was making history in 2012 (yes, obvious nationalism there). A pure exhibition show of everything great about the womens sport.
    The best going head-to-head without strong teams making controlling trains. The second tier riders chancing their legs with unorthadox attacks and forcing the favourites into genuine reactions to keep the race alive.

    And what’s great, this is far from a rare occasion in the womens sport. Ok it’s not always such a grandstand last gasp finish, but the best have to come out swinging head-to-head, can’t sit in a let teammates dictate the result, and outsiders can genuinely threaten and panic any single day.

    Thank you so much Inrng for including this in your highlights set. You don’t often cover the womens sport but when you do it’s handled to just as high a standard as normal, and that speaks volumes. And thank you for focusing on the race and not the politics around it.

    • The Giro Donne, or Giro Rosa (its present name which I’m not much fond of), isn’t organised by RCS, as isn’t Trofeo Binda. I think that the only RCS-organised race in the WWT calendar is the Strade Bianche.
      They aren’t involved, either, in important not-WWT women races in Italy, like Emilia or Beghelli.
      ASO’s got Liège, Fleche, La Course, Madrid Challenge. And the Tour of Yorkshire, which isn’t WWT, although it was pretty good.
      All the same, I see your point. It’s important not to kick serious, committed, historical women race organisers out of the game only in order to foster some sort of pink-washing by the big player. Thüringen Rundfahrt comes immediately to mind, or Trophée d’Or, or Ardéche, or Gracia-Orlova, or Tour de l’Aude… most of them with greater significance than ASO’s races, they’re now dead or more or less struggling out of the WWT.
      Yet, I’m not at all against any sort of involvement ASO might be forced to assume.

      As I side note, ASO’s men races are (arguably) the most watched ones – but, for sure, they aren’t the most exciting, lately. Liège and Fleche’s charm is menaced by sheer boredom, the Dauphiné has been generally poor for well more than a decade. Roubaix is great but it tends, by its own nature, to have its technical up-and-downs form year to year (part of its legend). No need to speak of recent TdFs -__-
      The best ones tend in terms of exciting racing to be Pa-Ni (which is back on the rise after suffering much for Ti-Ad switch to GT riders) and Paris-Tours.

  10. It feels slightly incongruous that here we have a piece on a season’s highlight, that has illicited criticism of all and sundry associated with the World Tour, from a blog that doesn’t routinely cover women’s cycling?
    This is not a slight on our author, who is cherished for the free offerings we get, but would it be possible for Inner Ring to get guest articles or input (like the Vuelta add-ons for instance) on the women’s races?
    I do recall this race, and it was very good, but it has appeared with little context; I like to read the previews and post-race summaries as it really fleshes out the whole race.
    Even looking back after several months has passed and re-reading fits the race in the season’s context.
    I consider Inner Ring a hugely positive associate of cycling and a more regular offering on the women’s races would surely help its cause?
    My very humble opinion anyway.

  11. Enjoyed the finish of this race. It was tantalising to the end.

    There didn’t seem any way that Van Vleuten could do it. But she didn’t give up, and Van Der Breggen folded. Spectacularly.

    Not seen a finish like it. Legend.

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